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Downton Abbey: Why we love it— and where it went

By Editor Dana Huntley 
Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: August 14, 2012 
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The Edwardian nobility's world was both dizzying and dazzling

All the world loves Downton Abbey.

From Boston to Brisbane, fans around the globe are eagerly awaiting the third season of the most popular British costume epic since Brideshead Revisited. And if not quite all the world, then certainly a high percentage of British Heritage readers. What's not to love?

The sweeping period drama chronicles the historical events and early 20th-century lives of the residents of stately Downton Abbey, home to the Crawleys—the Earl of Grantham and his family—and all who ebb and flow in its umbra. Drawing on the upstairs/downstairs tradition of Upstairs, Downstairs, the structure itself is a popular, proven series format. With almost three-dozen characters whose individual lives at Downton the viewer is expected to follow and care for, there's someone or several with whom anyone can identify.

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The lavish production of the Edwardian nobility's elegant world is both dizzying and dazzling. Upstairs, this world is governed by the conventions of the aristocracy as much as by the hierarchical order radiating from the Earl of Grantham, his mother, the Dowager Countess, and his American-born wife, Cora. Downstairs, the pecking order is even more rigid, with the butler, Mr. Carson, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, unassailable at the top of the social pyramid.

There are few grays in the Downton Abbey world. Right, wrong, done and not done are clearly known by all. Much-applauded author Julian Fellowes has made sure that we know black from white in this world as well. There are the good guys and girls and there are the villains. We can't understand how everyone from scullery maid Daisy to Lady Grantham fails to see that footman Thomas and Lady's maid O'Brien are a bad lot all around. In fact, the pace of the story has been justly criticized for its sheer speed. Complications and resolutions occur in the myriad subplots conveyed by only a few sentences of dialog. You certainly have to pay attention. Among the questions I have been asked most about Downton Abbey is how accurately the series depicts Edwardian and post-Edwardian life in an aristocratic home such as Downton. Are we getting the real picture?

In most respects, we are. The one element that does not ring true is the easy interaction and conversation between the upstairs world of the family and their peers and the downstairs world of the hired help. That just didn't happen (or at least not on such a scale). Most of the family wouldn't have even known a housemaid's name. These great country homes had back stairways for a reason. There's not going to have been much interaction between these social sets, let alone much of an emotional connection. Of course, it always takes some element of the improbable to make a story a story instead of a dull narrative.

The press of fans now visiting Highclere has prompted the estate to open an extra tea tent.
The press of fans now visiting Highclere has prompted the estate to open an extra tea tent.
Downton Abbey is inexplicably situated in distant Yorkshire (probably to avoid having to weave London life into the tale). In "real life," the series is shot at Highclere Castle, near the Berkshire market town of Newbury—about 65 miles west of London. What was originally, and probably more accurately, named Highclere House, the "castle" has been the ancestral home of the Earls of Carnarvon for more than 300 years. Its present residents are the youngish 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.

With unknown crowds of others, I went to see Highclere Castle this spring—just to catch the buzz and a few pictures. While Highclere Castle is open to the public regularly only from July through mid-September, they do open for a two-week spring season at Easter. The weather was generally gray and wet on the April Friday I was there, but the place was mobbed and the sun broke out. Most folks were there to visit Downton Abbey. In fact, a huge marquee had been erected on the back lawn to serve as an auxiliary tearoom to the regular café located downstairs in the old housekeeper's suite.

No, somehow the crowds didn't dampen the experience at all. I wandered the grounds and gardens, where folk were picnicking and kibitzing with the gardeners.

The stream of visitors into the house was controlled to keep the flow from feeling crowded or hurried. Stewards in each room were helpful with questions, but not obtrusive. The Earl and the estate staff are hardly oblivious to Highclere's new reincarnation as Downton Abbey in popular imagination. Each room contains a photo placard identifying how the room has been used and filmed in the series—from the Grand Parlor to the bedroom where the unfortunate Mr. Pamouk stayed, eh, briefly.

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2 Responses to “Downton Abbey: Why we love it— and where it went”

  1. 1
    Rudy says:

    It has been a good while to remember this.

  2. 2
    Kathryn says:

    My husband and I just finished watching seasons 1&2 over the past few weeks. I just found myself so depressed after each segment that if he wants to watch season 3, he will be doing it alone. The high point was INNOCENT Mr. Bates getting his death sentence commuted to life in prison.

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